Egypt and Tunisia: The artistic revolution in the Middle East



Egypt and Tunisia:
The artistic revolution in the Middle East

“This was a very artistic revolution,” Noor Ayman Nour, son of a famous dissident Egyptian politician and founder of the Egyptian metal band Bliss, told Andy Morgan — a writer, journalist, researcher and event programmer with a background in the music industry who has written an interesting article about the role of music in the Middle Eastern struggle for democracy, published in The Observer on 27 February 2011.

The article describes the music censorship, and how Egypt’s metal heads lived in fear of arrest, before the revolution in the country, and it is dedicated to the memory of artist and musician Ahmed Bassiouni, who died in Cairo on 28 January 2011 from injuries sustained fighting the police and government militias.

In the article, Andy Morgan puts words to the newly gained musical freedom in Egypt in this way:
“Political freedom and cultural freedom danced hand in hand. To be young, to be alive was bliss, but to rediscover the thrill of banging your head to the sound of a raw, pummelling guitar, or spitting lyrics to the mic, or strumming out the truth in simple chords, without fear or compromise… that was very heaven.”

Fear of arrest
“Before the revolution, Egypt’s metal heads lived in fear of arrest. Bullet belts, Iron Maiden T-shirts, horn gestures and headbanging were closet pastimes for foolhardy freaks. Bands such as Bliss, Wyvern, Hate Suffocation, Scarab, Brutus and Massive Scar Era rocked their fans like the priests of a persecuted sect who lived in constant wariness of the ghastly Mukhabarat, Mubarak’s secret police,” Andy Morgan writes.

He talks with Mark LeVine, author of the recently published book ‘Heavy Metal Islam’ and the Freemuse report on heavy metal, who confirms to him that in those days, “the consequences of speaking out could be pretty dire.”

“We were like in a cocoon,” explains Skander Besbes, also known as Skndr, a luminary of Tunisia’s electro and dance scene, “Closed in on ourselves, ignoring the regime and the authorities. You’re angry, but you move on, because you don’t know what to do…”

Tunisia: rap song started shock waves
“It took a rapper to galvanise Tunisia’s youth, whose frustration had been fuelled by years of government corruption, nepotism, ineptitude and general state-imposed joylessness. Until a few months ago, Hamada Ben Amor, aka El Général, was just a 21-year-old wannabe MC in a Stussy hoodie, leather jacket and baseball cap. (…)

On 7 November 2010, El Général uploaded a piece of raw fury called ‘Rais Le Bled’ (President, Your Country) on to Facebook. Within hours, the song had lit up the bleak and fearful horizon like an incendiary bomb. Before being banned, it was picked up by local tv station Tunivision and al-Jazeera. El Général’s MySpace was closed down, his mobile cut off. But it was too late. The shock waves were felt across the country and then throughout the Arab world. That was the power of protesting in Arabic, albeit a locally spiced dialect of Arabic. El Général’s bold invective broke frontiers and went viral from Casablanca to Cairo and beyond. (…)

El Général’s rap broke the spell of fear and showed his peers that it was possible to rebel and survive. Rap’s power is its simplicity.”

Prohibited songs broadcasted
According to Al Shorouk newspaper, several songs that were previously prohibited from being aired on national radio stations have been blasting out during the revolution in Egypt. Such songs include Abdel El Halim Hafez’s ‘Soora’ (Picture), and Kolna Hanebny’s ‘Wady Ehna Banena El Sad El Aly’ (We will all build a valley, we built the high dam), which was sung as a celebration of the building of the high dam during the era of president Gamal Abdel El Nasser.

The artists Aly El Haggar and Mohamed Mounir were also highly censored. The newspaper mentions Aly El Haggar’s ‘Hona El Kahera’ (We are all Cairo) and Mohamed Mounir’s ‘El Khawaga Ebn Mareeka’ (The foreigner, the son of Mareeka) as examples of this.

Tunisia and Egypt

Ahmed Bassiouni


Click to read more about the report
Read the Freemuse Heavy Metal report

Hamada – El Général

Read the article

The Observer / The Guardian – 27 February 2011:

‘From fear to fury: how the Arab world found its voice’

Related information

Ahram Online – 1 March 2011:

‘Al Shorouk: The revolution brings back banned songs’

Time – 15 February 2011:

‘El G

This article in Danish langauge

Additional information and comments

7 August 2011:
Radio interview with singer Ramy Essam

Listen to BBC’s interview with Ramy Essam, the Egyptian singer-songwriter who became famous for turning protesters chants into catchy songs

The 24-year-old singer Ramy Essam was one of the first to stand up on stage on Tahrir Square in January 2011 and directly attack Mr Mubarak, calling the president by name and telling him to leave. In this interview with Matthew Bannister in the BBC World Service’s Outlook programme, Ramy Essam told his story about how he shot to the forefront of the revolution with a collection of songs that captured the fear, optimism and defiant demand for change that was sweeping across Egypt in January 2011.

BBC News article – 7 August 2011:
‘Ramy Essam: Singer catapulted to fame on Tahrir Square’


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25 May 2011:
Music paved the way for the Arab Spring

“The most powerful thing I have seen [at the huge Mawazine music festival in Rabat, Morocco] is a young rock band from Casablanca called Hoba Hoba Spirit (check ‘em out on YouTube). They had a crowd in the tens of thousands, almost all under 25 years old, shouting and moshing to hard-edged rock with Moroccan rhythms and very clever, edgy political lyrics. This is the face of North African youth—engaged, passionate, aggrieved, but more joyous and hopeful than angry. This band has made its reputation on the internet and using social media—not via CDs, radio play, or television. Seeing this, I understood how music—especially local rock and hip hop—genuinely has paved the way for the Arab Spring. This is not the music of a movement. In a very real sense, the music IS the movement. And, ultimately, the story Afropop will be investigating and revealing in Egypt is all about that: how music makes history, in the past, but, especially, in the extraordinary present we are now witnessing.
I am more convinced than ever that Afropop is working on one of the most important stories going on in the world today.”
Banning Eyre, producer of Afropop Worldwide, in his blog

5 June 2011:
New release: ‘Our Dreams Are Our Weapons – Soundtracks of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt’

Tunisian rapper El General’s ‘Rais Le Bled’ appears on the new Network compilation ‘Our Dreams Are Our Weapons – Soundtracks of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt’.

The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt were uprisings by real people against the clans of governing despotic autocrats who were finally driven from power. In the organization of this opposition the internet played a major role as an alternative news agency. Gradually new music by various groups turned up on YouTube in particular, along which film footage of the protests, attracting millions of visitors. In close collaboration with the musicians Network has now issued a first CD of the most important soundtracks of these revolts.

• From Tunisia, Zorah Lejnef, among others, with her revolutionary hit ‘Free Tunis’

Skander Guetari with an oriental ballad encouraging the demoralized young people to engage in honourable protest; the rapper “El General” with a candidly presented list of the many abuses being suffered

• The famous composer Rabii Zamouri with a striking ‘Hymn of the Revolution’

Alia Salimi, one of her country’s best vocalists, with a subtle song about the new light at the end of the tunnel of silence

• In Egypt the song ‘The Sound of Freedom’ by Hani Adel became a hymn of the revolution and together with Ezzay by pop-star Mohammed Mounir had more than three million visitors on YouTube.

• Also from Egypt the Sufi singer Aida, who together with a children’s choir champions the peaceful coexistence of the different religions.

• The Coptic Tawadros brothers, famous for virtuoso playing on the Arab lute or oud, and delicate percussion, went to the studio directly from a demonstration.

Music that accuses, that unites in protest, that expresses hopes and longings, that invites us to reflect, and that encourages a new self-determined beginning. A unique CD documentation with 14 first issues.

28 May 2011:
Article about music revolution in Libya

The profusion, diversity, and anonymity of Libya’s revolutionary music are a complete turnaround from the stifled state of Libya’s music in the Gaddafi era. Now, Libya’s independence-era anthem came back roaring after being banned for four decades. Read the article:

Libya’s Explosive Music Revolution

Ramy Essam

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